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During the State of the University, VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said VCU is “designing the model public research university for the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond.” (Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

In State of the University, Rao says VCU will continue to be a model for connecting with a changing society

Rao calls VCU “a talent activator” that is committed to meeting people’s needs, while asking his audience to consider, “What will we each do to move VCU forward?”

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During his State of the University address today, Virginia Commonwealth University President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said VCU serves as a model of what a public research university should be but must continue to strengthen its drive to serve the public good.

Speaking at James Branch Cabell Library to both in-person and live-streaming audiences, Rao touted some of VCU’s highlights from 2023, including record-breaking freshman enrollment, research funding and fundraising; a new comprehensive designation from the National Cancer Institute for the VCU Massey Comprehensive Cancer Center; and the opening of the School of Population Health and new world class facilities. However, he said it was critical for VCU to maintain its momentum. “How can VCU continue to be a model for connecting with a changing society – moving as fast as society moves or getting ahead of that pace?”

“At VCU, our inspiration comes from change, and it comes from feedback about what our students, patients and society need,” Rao said. “Together, we’re designing the model public research university for the next 10, 20, 30 years and beyond. So the question is what should that look like? How do we as a public university bridge these gaps that we know are out there. There are gaps between problems and solutions. There are gaps between diseases and cures. … And there are gaps between the educational world and the professional world.”

Rao called VCU “a talent activator” determined to help its students and others reach their full potential.

“We are evolving and we’re adapting how we produce and share knowledge and learning so that we can serve our communities,” Rao said. “We’re extending lives and we’re modeling the very best care in our health system. And we’re also leveraging the brilliance and discovery of faculty and staff and our students so that we can position Virginia and also the United States for economic competitiveness and the prosperity of every life we touch.”

Rao said VCU has done “a remarkable job of connecting with people’s needs,” and awareness of VCU continues to grow “exponentially” with the university already setting a record for freshman applications in the current admissions cycle, even as applications continue to come in. Crucially, the launch of the guaranteed admissions program expanded VCU’s reach so that “if you’re a high school student anywhere – not just in Virginia – with high academic credentials, you’re in,” Rao said.

“We measure excellence as a public research university by inclusion, not exclusion,” Rao said. “We work to bring students in, not keep students out. The result is that we have a really talented student body that absolutely reflects the diversity of our population, where more than 36% of our freshmen students last fall are first-generation in their families to go to college.”

Among VCU’s accolades in the past year, Rao highlighted that U.S. News & World Report recognized VCU as one of the 20 most innovative public universities in the country. The recognition stems from the university’s determined focus on the future.

“Thinking ahead,” Rao said. “This is what a public university that’s innovative is really for.”

Rao said it will be critical for faculty and staff to adapt as society’s views and needs continue to change. In particular, Rao said he will leverage his position to increase VCU’s focus on artificial intelligence, including how it can help better serve students and patients.

“We’ve got to prepare our students to live and work in a world that will have AI,” Rao said. “As a university, we already teach students critical thinking and ethics, and entrepreneurship, compassion, empathy – these are things that machines just can't replicate. So how do we prepare students for a world where AI might just automate more and more the jobs that we see people in today? … How do we integrate AI into our programs where it might make sense, acknowledging the transformative role that it might have but also acknowledging the limits that come with it?”

As a public university, VCU’s role is to prepare students for life, including getting them ready for professional careers, Rao said. That means helping them launch their careers before they graduate using a “three-legged” approach: helping students land traditional internships, inviting corporate and community partners to bring VCU problems they need solved, and involving students in faculty-driven projects.

“Together, these legs engage students and teach them teamwork and how to think in terms of complex problems they’ll solve when they’re in their careers, which is pretty much right after graduation,” Rao said. “And from my own experience talking with students, most of them just love the idea of being able to use what they are learning when they are learning it.”

Rao said VCU will continue to be innovative in its commitment to ensuring that every student has an experience that will help prepare them for careers and the world.

“We're going to provide pathways for students to reinforce what they learn by putting it into practice outside of the classroom,” Rao said. In the next two years, Rao said VCU should build professional experiences outside the classroom into all its degrees and programs.

“Together we can imagine and innovate experiences for students to motivate them to learn and to get ready for work and for their lives,” Rao said.

Rao said VCU’s research is “solving problems that vex society,” and going forward, “we’ll pursue research that’s focused on people’s changing needs and that is impactful.” Rao noted that VCU is one of three universities included in Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed “Virginia Research Triangle” to advance innovation and collaboration in biotech, life sciences and pharmaceutical manufacturing.

In the years ahead, Rao hopes to help raise VCU “to the highest levels among our category of public research universities.”

“I will expand further the work that I do to promote and support your impactful research. That has been a privilege for me,” Rao said. “I love getting to know your research. I love being able to understand it in ways that I can explain it to other people and connect it to how it lifts society. I'll also continue to help all of you make those connections, like we do in Washington, D.C., to our partners who provide funding for our research. What can we each do to embrace that aspect of our mission, to advance the importance of research at this university?”

Just as VCU anticipates and adapts to changing needs in higher education, it also must be flexible and adaptable to health care landscape changes, Rao said. He said that VCU Health has not been immune to the financial issues faced by health systems across the country in the wake of the pandemic, but the health system has seen a tremendous financial turnaround in the first six months of fiscal year 2024 with income from operations this year already exceeding the past two fiscal years’ combined operating loss, bucking national trends in medical center finances.

Rao said VCU is setting the pace for top public research universities and will continue to expand its impact “to extend and lift more lives, to harvest more potential, to include more people, to connect us more with those who can support our students and graduates. This will strengthen our resources and support our VCU teams.”

“We're going to take this enormous opportunity that we have to shape and define what a public research university can be for the future,” Rao said. “Our role is critical. Together with you, I look forward to leading and being a part of VCU's incredibly important next steps. Our future is best when we design it ourselves, driven by the people who need us the most. We have this dynamic mission as one of Virginia's major public research universities that gives us a chance to help shape society, not just in Virginia but beyond. Not just reacting to change but driving and being a part of that change. So, as we look to the future, few institutions have the opportunity that we have got to soar, shifting the mission of a public research university much closer to the needs of all people.”